Alum Perspective: Practicing the Healer’s Art as a Street Medic

I am a nurse practitioner in the Washington, DC, region (Alumna requests to remain anonymous to protect herself and her career). My effort to live the Healer’s art, coupled with my training at BYU’s College of Nursing, has led me to an unexpected role: street medic. I believe that others within the BYU nursing program and its alumni network would find my experiences inspiring and could broaden their vision of ways that they can “go forth to serve.”

A background on street medics: A street medic is a volunteer with medical training who attends public events, especially protests, and provides first aid and medical assistance to those in need. They frequently are not part of the protest itself, instead of holding themselves as separate support personnel ready to aid any injured. Some street medics work as part of a larger organization, allowing themselves to pool resources and better coordinate their efforts. Others volunteer what time and resources they have on an individual basis. Volunteers usually wear distinctive markers and clothing to distinguish themselves from protest participants, seeing themselves as similar to Doctors Without Borders or the American Red Cross. Their neutrality is supposed to be honored by protestors, counter-protestors, police, media, and politicians. The presence of a street medic at an event is seen as a public good for all.

Listen to an exclusive interview on The College Handoff, with “Barbara and Frank” as they explain the basics of street medicine and share why it is so rewarding.

Street medics can be called upon to treat a wide variety of injuries and cases. Even the most outwardly peaceful protest can keep providers busy. Skinned knees, twisted ankles, sunburn, heatstroke, and foot blisters are common ailments at any large rally. Even if there is no call for any medical assistance throughout the demonstration, medics are still useful because their presence provides peace of mind to protestors. Often, all that a person needs from a medic is a friendly demeanor and a snack or water bottle. However, sometimes situations can become more hostile. The injuries requiring treatment quickly multiply, and medics swing into action. I have treated lacerations, broken bones, and chemical irritant (pepper spray) exposure and have performed neurological exams for possible concussions. Other street medics here and across the country have treated knife wounds, gunshot wounds, shattered skulls, ruptured eyeballs, and vehicle-inflicted trauma.

The stakes can be high working as a street medic. We can encounter dangerous situations and life-threatening injuries where every second counts. EMS can be unavailable; blocked roads and police lines can prevent any ambulance from arriving. Some protestors are afraid of seeing a doctor about a protest-related injury because they worry about being identified by police or extremists who would target them. Additionally, some injured activists and bystanders are too poor to afford an ambulance ride or seek professional medical care. For many, a street medic is the only source of medical treatment for anything short of imminent death. It makes the quality of care they receive from someone like me even more important.

When not attending protests, street medic organizations focus on community outreach and public health campaigns for underserved community members. Individual medics and street medic organizations assist homeless individuals and other public health efforts. While there is no official governing or licensing body or formal qualification process for street medics, there are generally accepted practices, policies, and training programs for those who claim the mantle of being a street medic. Even experienced medical providers should receive supplemental training specific to street medicine if they wish to be involved. Being a street medic is different from what you are used to as a nurse. The environment, limitations, and situations are unusual. You have to learn new skills and techniques (like eye washing), new tricks of the trade (always have a partner working with you, and never use milk to counteract chemical irritants), rules to follow (never film protestors without their explicit individual permission), and how to navigate a sometimes chaotic situation. Truthfully, things are usually boring and uneventful at protests, but there are times it can be quite scary.

Not all street medics and organizations have identical philosophies. Specifically, some street medics decline to treat non-emergent injuries among groups that historically are violent towards protesters, such as police officers or supremacists. While I respect the personal choices of other medics, I have cared and will continue to care for injured individuals that others may not treat. I feel it is part of the Healer’s art to treat any wounded, regardless of their actions at the protest, their affiliation with any group, or their profession. I have diagnosed independent activists, protestors, journalists, bystanders, police, and anyone else caught in harm’s way. When the shout of “Medic!” goes up, I run through danger, chaos, and clouds of pepper spray to render aid and get the person to safety.

One does not need to have strong political ideals to get involved in street medicine. While some medics and street medic organizations have aligned with specific political or community causes, others strive to maintain an apolitical public face as I do. I do not see my work as political activism. Instead, having witnessed the suffering meted out to my community members, I feel compelled by professional obligation and a need to embrace the Healer’s art to step forward fully. I can’t entirely agree with all of the goals, policy positions, and slogans of the people I help and the rallies I attend, but the needs of my community have led me to do my best to lift where I stand by using my skills and education to uplift others and mitigate harm. The values instilled through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and my education at Brigham Young University compel me to step outside of my normal comfort zone and walk into harm’s way to assist the injured.

As a street medic, I also have a new appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of others. I have seen incredible acts of courage, kindness, humanity, solidarity, faith, and community spirit alongside some of the ugliest behavior that fellow children of God can muster. I have been shouted at and threatened; I have been mocked, shoved, and pepper sprayed; I have been called treasonous, un-American, and unpatriotic and have been heckled with the foulest language possible. It has been a story of inspiration—seeing the best of some people—and disappointment—seeing the worst in others. Though there are hazards in work, this is how I strengthen and serve in my community, uphold the values of BYU nursing, and practice the Healer’s art—as a street medic. Clad in a gas mask and a bike or hockey helmet, covered in Red Cross patches and medical insignia, carrying as much medical equipment and first-aid supplies as I can afford, I support my community.

I pray that the Lord will protect us as we seek to do that which is right. We strive to help “lift the hands that hang down” (Hebrews 12:12), “comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9), and bring respite and relief to those most in need. I feel that it is our moral duty as neighbors and members of a community and our spiritual duty as followers of Christ and members of the restored gospel. Whatever the case, the core values remain the same: compassion for all of God’s children, especially the downtrodden.

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